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Schumacher sets record in rain-delayed Indianapolis victory

CLERMONT, Ind. - Tony Schumacher had won only one race since October 2010. That's almost two years the seven-time champion and decorated driver of the U.S. Army Dragster went with only one victory (albeit a momentous one Fathers Day at Bristol, Tenn., helping his dad's multi-car team score a nitro-classes double-down).

But he popped in and out of the points lead and lurked near the top of the standings all season. Then came the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, and all of a sudden he was "The Sarge In Charge" once again. It seems to be automatic, Tony Schumacher winning at Indianapolis. But Sunday simply was another of those "Big Moments" Schumacher relishes, one of those opportunities for which he always is prepared.

"Today was probably the most gratifying of the nine wins," Schumacher said following the finish of the rain-delayed classic at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis and his final-round coupe-de-grace against teammate and Traxxas Shootout winner Spencer Massey. "With the chance to win my ninth, I have to go against my teammate, who I know has been qualifying better and running as good as or better than us, and for them to have lane choice . . . It was just a perfect moment."

It was an outstanding one, as well, for repeat winner Mike Neff (Funny Car), first time U.S. Nationals winner Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle), and Pro Stock's Dave Connolly, the Victor Cagnazzi Racing tuner and part-time driver who prepped Erica Enders' car as she became his final-round opponent.

Schumacher hadn't had a disappointing season. He had been to five final rounds and helped Don Schumacher Racing put a choke-hold on much of the rest of the class. And he helped them stay 1-2-3 as the Countdown to the Championship will begin at Charlotte this weekend.

"Mike [Crew chief Green] and all the Army guys made the car go fast, and here we are with another trophy," Schumacher said after passing "Big Daddy" Don Garlits for the most Top Fuel victories at the U.S. Nationals and tying Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden for the NHRA record here.

The only hint of imperfection in Schumacher's day was the fact Garlits was home in Florida with wife Pat.

"I really wish Big Daddy would’ve been here today," Schumacher said. "I know he's at home, taking care of his wife, and family always comes first. I really appreciated the fact that he was behind my car and clapping when we won my eighth (in 2009). He has done so much for the sport. I don't ever want to feel like we're taking anything away from him. He had a great record in a different time period. He accomplished so much. Someday someone is going to pass me, I'm sure."

He called Indianapolis "a special place" and said, "Indy has been so great. The U.S. Nationals was my first-ever Top Fuel race in 1996. From the first push of the pedal at this racetrack, it has been special to me. And it was right here back in 2000, when the U.S. Army teamed up with us.

"There were a lot of great soldiers here today, so to be able to give back to them what we've created with these wins is so rewarding. The freedom they give us and sacrifices they make just so we can do this is unbelievable. I love every one of them. What an awesome win and an awesome place.

"Anymore, it's more difficult to win a race, by far, than it has probably ever been. There was a time where we were a tenth [of a second] ahead of everybody and just needed to not make any mistakes, but the top seven cars are all so close that it's pretty gratifying," he said.

Completing the Top Fuel Countdown field are (in order) Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta, Morgan Lucas, Shawn Langdon, Brandon Bernstein, Dave Grubnic, and Bob Vandergriff.

Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerged as champions of the so-called "regular-season" as the six-race playoffs will begin this Friday at zMAX Dragway at Charlotte.

In tuning himself to the Funny Car victory in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, Neff extended John Force Racing's dominance at the U.S. Nationals to five consecutive years. JFR drivers have won at Indianapolis eight times in the past 11 seasons. Neff defeated Tim Wilkerson in the fourth straight all-Ford Racing final round. His achievement also marked the fourth consecutive year the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang has won. Ashley Force Hood won in 2009 and 2010, and Neff has gone back-to-back.

Neff, the No. 10 starter Sunday, said "It is amazing how close everything today was to last year. I didn't do very good job in qualifying last year. [He was ninth in 2011.] I remember getting up last year and just not feeling very good. I remember thinking, 'I am going to have to really pull something out of the hat' last year. I had the same feeling this morning."

He set low elapsed time in the first round, then in the quarterfinals benefited from Todd Lesenko's devastating second engine explosion in as many days. Lesenko couldn't repair his car in time to return to the staring line. "You don't see that very often," Neff said of the Round 2 freebie. "We were quick every run. As the day went on I started feeling better.

"I was nervous the first round with all the cars smoking the tires in the left lane. I didn't have lane choice. Then Lesenko blew his body off and there was all that drama. There was a lot going on, and I watched Force smoke the tires and then [points leader Ron] Capps [lose]. It was just really stressful. Once that was over and I knew I was getting a single, it just got better."

JFR has the Nos. 2, 4, 6, and 8 seeds at the start of the Countdown. Robert Hight is second, Mike Neff fourth, Courtney Force sixth, and John Force eighth. Securing the No. 1, 3, and 5 spots were Don Schumacher Racing drivers Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, and Johnny Gray. Rounding out the field are seventh-place, ninth-place Jeff Arend, and 10th-place Tim Wilkerson.

Wilkerson's runner-up finish vaulted him ahead of both Matt Hagan and Bob Tasca and into the 10th and final berth in the Countdown. Four drivers were vying for the final two Countdown slots, and Wilkerson qualified fourth -- the only one of the quartet to qualify in the top half of the U.S. Nationals ladder.

But Wilkerson sat through eliminations and watched rival Jeff Arend and Hagan win before he had his chance to defeat Tasca for the loser-out duel. Wilkerson won on a holeshot, battling Tasca side by side down the 1,000-foot course. He still was out of the top 10, with Hagan No. 10, and his next opponent was Arend.

In Round 2, Wilkerson won as Arend smoked the tires, but Hagan also won (against Robert Hight). So it came down to his semifinal meeting with Johnny Gray. Wilkerson had to win the round, no easy task against Gray, or he would miss the Countdown cut. If he won, he was in. Gray's Dodge quit on him near the end of the run, and Wilkerson at last had survived the drama -- or perhaps created more.

Moments later, Mike Neff defeated Hagan, knocking the 2011 champion from the playoffs and leaving Arend in 10th place. However, Wilkerson spilled oil on the track in his final-round run against Neff and lost 10 points. He ended the day in 10th place, moving Arend to ninth. So Wilkerson had earned the final playoff spot by only seven points, and he had had to advance as far as the final round to do so.

"We were small-balling them to death out there, running 4.13s and daring anyone to beat us," Wilkerson said, "but it worked and the car was really consistent. It would've been great if all those guys lost in the first round, just to make it easy and simple for us, but it seemed like we had to find a way to pick them off one at a time. And each time we did we still had further to go if we were going to get in the playoffs. We just kept taking it one lap at a time, but . . . you better believe we were counting points."

"We were eating pistons up all day, and I said before the final that we need to fix that or we'll go broke," Wilkerson said. "It almost cost us more than money. It came real close to yanking that playoff spot right back out of our hands with the penalty. How bad would that have been? To get all pumped up knowing you'd done something pretty difficult by having a near-perfect day, and then have it taken back out of your hands? Luckily, we had just a enough cushion to keep it, and we'll have to win the championship out of the 10th spot, I guess. 10th is way better than 11th. It's just a shame the motor wouldn't hold together for another hundredth of a second."

Hagan said he'll try "to go out and win a couple races and make something out of the season. It will bring all these guys' spirits back. It's something we can do during these last six races."

In Pro Stock, Connolly made the most of his chance to compete in the Pro Stock class at the U.S. Nationals in the IDG Chevy, even if he had to do it at the expense of the driver for whom he's crew chief. He guided Erica Enders to the No. 1 qualifying spot and to the final round, but he was eager to beat her and the hot-streaking KLR Group Chevy in the showdown.

"Erica's car is still running on mean," Connolly said on the eve of eliminations. "We're going to try to continue the roll that we're on." But he had other ideas Sunday when they pulled to the starting line opposite each other. He treated her like any of his other competitors.

"It was definitely bittersweet in the final, running Erica," Connolly said. "I think I'm more proud when she wins than when I win. I truly mean that. I hope she whips my butt the next six finals. But it's the U.S. Nationals, and there's no laying over. It was cutthroat. Pro Stock's brutal right now. It doesn't matter where you get in. You definitely have a shot. With Cagnazzi power under the hood and judging by Erica's performance, we've got the right tools."

But even Connolly marveled at the accomplishment. "It's incredible," he said following his .002-second victory margin. "To even race Pro Stock was always a dream of mine as a kid. To win the U.S. Nationals in '07 was unbelievable. It was one of those wins you'll never forget. I ran in '07 and '08 and won and haven't run here since. We've got a little 12-round winning streak right now."

Connolly said his victory was hard-won. He said Enders "drives incredibly consistent. She's hard to rattle."

Enders, too, used the word "bittersweet," adding, "I'm happy for Dave and the entire team, of course. He's one of my best friends, and it's great to be in victory lane with him and all the GK guys. But I'd much rather be the one holding the trophy.

"We still have an awesome hot rod, and I'm excited for the Countdown," she said. "My guys have worked their butts off all year, and we're not going to slow down for anyone."

That's the same sentiment coming from the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson team that has won every regular-season Pro Stock Motorcycle race this year. It was Hines' tunr Sunday as he recorded his first Indianapolis victory, easily defeating Hector Arana Sr. in the final round. Hines has won four times this year, and points leader Eddie Krawiec has won the other six events.

"For us to struggle like we've done here, with inconsistency in tuning and riding, and every scenario possible going against us, to finally get the Indy win and stand in the U.S. Nationals winners circle is something I can look back on years from now. I had found the winners circle four times here with the Pro Bike battle, and to actually stand there with the U.S. Nationals trophy means the world to me.

"[Eddie] and I intend to extend our streak," Hines said.

Michael Ray, Shawn Gann, and Matt Smith claimed the final three playoff positions in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Already locked into the playoffs were Hector Arana Jr., Hector Arana Sr., Karen Stoffer, Scotty Pollacheck, and LE Tonglet.

The last thee Pro Stock car class Countdown berths went to V Gaines, Larry Morgan and four-time class champion Jeg Coughlin, who struggled all year in his first go with his new Dodge Avenger team and his own engine program.

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